Do Not Blame the Salafis

Do Not Blame the Salafis by Imam Zaid Shakir

The current avalanche of negativity directed at Islam and Muslims, fueled, to a large extent, by the actions of coldblooded “Jihadi” murderers, and increasingly stoked by the mainstream news media, is unsettling to most people, including most Muslims.  That being the case, there is a desperate search for answers and solutions. One result of that desperation is the tendency to discard nuance and history when analyzing the roots of “Jihadi” violence.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the argument being advanced by some that the maniacal violence of the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS is due to their Salafist roots. While this argument is convenient and simple, it is not an accurate or detailed explanation for such violence. Utilizing it disguises some very important facts and opens the door to undermining the very critical solidarity needed by those in the Muslim community, many of whom call themselves Salafis, who stand in vehement opposition to ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and their ilk.

We begin by mentioning that one of the most influential Salafi scholars of the Twentieth Century, Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, was decidedly apolitical. This is particularly true after his indirect association with the failed Meccan Revolt of 1979. From then on, the focus of his “Dawah” was to encourage the adoption of a particular interpretation of the theological and legal methodology of the early generations of Muslims (as-Salaf as-Salih), while purging Islam of what he considered to be unfounded, corrupting accretions. In his view, and that of his followers, victory for Islam and the Muslims, in this world, would only be accomplished when these steps have been taken and would ultimately involve Divine intervention. This is the approach endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Salafis worldwide.

Furthermore, the Salafis have a consistent methodology (Minhaj), as Al-Albani and other Salafis place great emphasis on the foundational aspects of Muslim belief and practice. Legally, some see that methodology as reflecting elements of the literalism of Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm, and to a certain extent, the legal reasoning of the Shafi’i school, from which Dawud al-Dhahiri emerged. Others would say that Salafis are committed to a legal methodology more akin to what is popularly known as comparative fiqh, which focuses on considering the opinions of various juridical schools on a particular issue and then choosing the one deemed to be evidentiary preponderant.

In theology, most Salafis adopt a methodology that generally reflects the positions of the Hanbalis, with special emphasis on the emendations of the great, if controversial, Hanbali scholar, ibn Taymiyya. It is extremely important to note that the Salafi theological approach, while highly critical of the Ash’aris and Maturidis, in the Sunni realm, did not lead to the inability to peacefully and respectfully coexist with other Muslims –with rare exception. This respect is exemplified by ibn Taymiyya in his famous debate with the great Ash’ari, Sufi scholar ibn ‘Ata Allah Sakandari. Unlike the Salafis, ISIS, Boko Haram and their likeness have demonstrated no consistent legal or theological methodology. This allows them to distort the basic texts of Islam in ways that find little historical precedence and even less resonance among contemporary scholars.

Some will readily acknowledge that not all Salafis, such as al-Albani, are violent, but that the violence exhibited by Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Qaeda and similar groups is rooted in Salafi teachings. They would argue, to rephrase a popular Islamophobic cliché, “Not all Salafis are violent extremists, but all violent extremists are Salafis.” This is simply not true. While the violence of ISIS, Boko Haram and similar groups is well-publicized, the Alawi thugs defending the Asad regime, the Shiites of Hizbollah, who have flooded into Syria, the Iraqi Shiite militias and death squads that helped to push many Iraqi Sunnis into the ranks of ISIS, have all engaged in ghastly acts of violence. None of these latter groups, would be described in any way as Salafis. Hence, alienation, disenfranchisement, rabid sectarianism, a perceived threat to their very existence, or to the existence of an ally, as opposed to Salafism, might be more insightful explanations for the violence of all of these parties and factions.

We add here, for clarity, that of course not all violent extremists are Muslims. This is clearly indicated by the actions of the American military in Iraq and elsewhere, Hindu death squads in India, crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza, tribal militias in Rwanda and the Congo, Mexican and other Central and South American drug cartels, and many others. Examining this issue in detail is beyond the scope of this essay.

To begin to understand the sources of violence exhibited by “Jihadis,” we need to look beyond simplistic slogans. One of the issues that helps us to understand that violence is Takfir, the act of excommunicating other Muslims and declaring them to be outside the pale of Islam. This dangerous practice allows some Muslims to attack others with wanton impunity. While it is certainly true that some Salafis, contemporarily and historically, may be guilty of Takfir, it is not an exclusive Salafi problem.

Historically, Takfir was the hallmark of the Khawarij. The abuses and excesses of the Khawarij, in terms of their readiness to excommunicate other Muslims, were roundly repudiated by the historical antecedents of present-day Salafis and are rejected by most Salafis today. Many Muslims today view groups like ISIS as the modern-day Khawarij. That being the case, what do we say about those Salafis who condemn both the Khawarij as well as ISIS and reject their violence and the doctrines that enable it?

In more recent times, some of the groups most intense in their utilization of Takfir identify as Sufi. This would include a prominent Sufi group in Lebanon and some of the Sufi orders in the Indian subcontinent. In this regard, let us ask who declared the popular Muslim singer Junaid Jamshed an apostate, forcing him to temporarily leave Pakistan, fleeing for his life? It was not the Salafis. ISIS, Boko Haram and other “Jihadi” groups, however, have taken Takfir to a macabre extreme rarely witnessed in Muslim history. This extreme is rejected by virtually all Muslims, including most Salafis.

A second issue undergirding extreme “Jihadi” violence is the systematic erosion of the sanctity of life. In no uncertain terms, Islam strongly condemns the murder of innocents and noncombatants, even on the battlefield. Its teachings also endeavor to restrict the loss of life among active combatants. It does so through strong warnings against humans terminating lives that have been sanctified by Almighty God. When the concept of the God-given sanctity of life is lost, the ability and desire to distinguish between combatants, noncombatants, civilians, prisoners of war, women and children is lost. This is a reality likely to afflict anyone who finds himself adrift in the blinding fog of war. Far from being a Salafi issue, it is not even a religious issue, it is human issue.

One starts losing belief in the sanctity of life when one begins dehumanizing the “other.” Once that sanctity is lost, one is not killing an innocent human being, one is killing an object, a thing, which is totally undeserving of life. Consider the following chilling words of Steven Green, the American soldier who raped and then murdered a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl, after massacring her family, and then burning the bodies to hide the evidence of his crime. He stated at his trial, “There’s not a word to describe how much I hated these people… I wasn’t thinking of these people as humans.” The process whereby Green and others come to see Iraqis as towelheads and sand-niggers, may be different from the process whereby “Jihadis” come to see their victims as undeserving of life, but the common denominator is war.

A third issue contributing to the extreme violence we are currently witnessing in the Middle East is the unique nature of the apocalyptic reading of Islamic sources taken by ISIS. The feeling that we have literally reached the end of the world is not unique to contemporary violent groups. As the Muslim Ummah approached the end of the First Millennium, many respected scholars, such as Imam Suyuti, wrote treatises declaring the arrival of the Apocalypse. The difference between the vision of those scholars and ISIS is that no classical or contemporary scholar or group has politicized the apocalypse in ways ISIS has and then wedded that politicized interpretation with sensationalized violence.

ISIS’s violent eschatology cannot be described as Salafi, in the sense that it reflects neither the teachings of the early generations of Muslims, nor those of most contemporary Salafi groups. This is extremely important to bear in mind when one attempts to blame Salafism for the emergence of ISIS and related groups. There is a unique set of ideas and circumstances, a perfect storm if you will, one will have to comprehend if one is to truly understand these groups and combat their ideology.

While it is easy to claim that the “Salafi” roots of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and others is the cause of the levels of violence currently witnessed in areas where these organizations are operating, it is far more difficult to point to the source of the arms that have made the violence of these groups so lethal. Who armed and provided the logistical infrastructure of what would become Al Qaeda and the Taliban? How did Boko Haram go from being a cult-like organization confined to a single city in Northern Nigeria, to a group that is better armed than the Nigerian army? Who supplied them with their weaponry?

A similar question can be asked about ISIS. How did they gain control of so much advanced weaponry, most of it American? To claim that they got it when Mosul fell is inadequate. Why did 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, armed with heavy American weaponry in that city abandon their positions in the face of approximately 1,500 lightly-armed ISIS fighters? Why was ISIS allowed to truck those weapons across open desert, when destroying them would have been a turkey shoot? Who financed the purchase of the balance of their weapons stockpiles and who sold the arms to them? Answering these questions involve inconvenient truths that will never be mentioned by the pseudo-journalists, pundits and experts so quick to weigh in on the sources of “Jihadi” violence.

A related issue revolves around the question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions that led to the emergence of these murderous groups? Salafism existed in the Middle East and Africa long before “Jihadi” murderers appeared on the scene. Yet, there was no Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan before the old Soviet Union and then the American military ripped apart the social fabric of that country. Similarly, there was no ISIS before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. In Nigeria, Boko Haram began its deadly rampage after the Nigerian regime killed hundreds of its adherents and executed its founder, Muhammad Yusuf, in 2009. To simply attribute the violence of these groups to “Salafism” is to ignore the many actual causal factors that triggered and sustain the violence we rightly find so abhorrent.

In conclusion, there are several other issues we could examine in order to get to the roots of the violence we see in many parts of the Muslim world. Ultimately, we are dealing with a massive crisis of ignorance. We need to educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike about our religion and what it says about matters related to dehumanizing members of “other” communities, violence, war and peace. This is a long and challenging process that will require a unified community that respects all of its constituents who are committed to sanity and peace. By simply reducing the cause of “Jihadi” violence to Salafism we run the risk of failing to address the real roots of a phenomenon tearing apart far too many Muslim societies. We also run the risk of alienating a lot of sincere, well-meaning Muslims, who, while calling themselves Salafi, are just as outraged by the brutal excesses of so-called “Jihadis” as any other Muslim.


Categories: Extremism, Islam, Terrorism

14 replies

  1. The vast, vast majority of Salafis around the world are peaceful and law abiding pious Muslims.

    There is only a tiny percentage of Salafi Muslims around the world that are violent extremists….only a tiny percentage around the world who are committing terror.

    But almost all terrorists among Muslims are Salafis. (Of course, there are Shia extremists too but I am talking about Sunnis).

    And Muslims all over the world from the Rohingya people to Chechens to Kashmiris to Nigerians to Iraqis to Western Muslims are suffering because of the actions of this tiny minority…..of Salafi violent extremists.

    The Salafis have to ask themselves a very, very simple question.


    If they care about the Ummah…they need to ask this in a deep and comprehensive way?

    Enough of the excuses….ENOUGH of the conspiracies!

    Imam Zaid Shakir (who has said that he was a Salafi in the past) is not making excuses and he is not making conspiracies but he is missing the point.

    Alhamdullilah, Imam Zaid Shakir is a beautiful man…Mashallah….but he is missing the point.

    I am not asking my Salafi brothers and sisters to back down on good principles such as on anything that undermines Muslims to have correct understanding of Tawhid (unfortunately Salafist views smacks of too close to anthropomorphism) and I am not asking them to back down on anything else they find important.

    Indeed, I like some Salafi views and I am against the concepts of tawassul and I am even against intercession which is a view even further than Salafis.

    All Salafis need to ask….why are virtually all of the terrorists in the Muslim world for the last decades Salafist?

    Again, the vast majority of Salafis are completely innocent and are not violent and do not preach extremist thoughts, they are good law abiding people who are kind to all whether other Muslim sects or non-Muslims.


    • Muslim Questioner,
      Personally, I am not nor ever have been Salafi. But in the interest of accuracy and full disclosure can I ask, on what impartial data did you base your comment that, “virtually all of the terrorists in the Muslim world for the last decades (are) Salafist.” ??

      Liked by 1 person

    • “But almost all terrorists among Muslims are Salafis.”

      But that is incorrect.

      None of the terrorists follow the teaching and example of the salaf.

      See the origins of terrorism here:


    • Muslim Questioner,
      As Paul Williams stated, “None of the terrorists follow the teaching and example of the salaf.” That was the exact point of Imam Zaid Shakers article.

      I understand the frustration you feel, but we should not rush to blame one group or the other, for the sad state of the Ummah. There are numerous other reasons which are at play as well, as Zaid Shaker alluded to in his article.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In Germany, the security police has found that all identified terrorist cells so far come from the Salafist movement:


    • That is a misuse of the term.


    • Salafi-jihadist groups are hybrids, defined as those emphasizing the importance of returning to a “pure” Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors; and those believing that violent jihad is fard ‘ayn (a personal religious duty). According to Seth G. Jones of the Rand Corporation as of 2014 there were around 50 Salafist-Jihadist groups in existence or recently in existence:

      Abdullah Azzam Brigades
      (Yusuf al-Uyayri Battalions) Saudi Arabia 2009–present
      Abdullah Azzam Brigades
      (Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions) Lebanon 2009–present
      Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) Philippines 1991–present
      Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA) Yemen 1994–present
      Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) Somalia, Ethiopia 1994–2002
      Al-Qaeda (core) Pakistan 1988–present
      Al-Qaeda in Aceh
      (aka Tanzim al Qa’ida Indonesia
      for Serambi Makkah) Indonesia 2009–2011
      Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia) Saudi Arabia 2002–2008
      Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) Yemen 2008–present
      al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
      (AQIM, formerly Salafist Group for
      Preaching and Combat, GSPC) Algeria 1998–present
      Al Takfir wal al-Hijrah Israel (Gaza), Egypt (Sinai) 2011–present
      Al-Mulathamun (Mokhtar Belmokhtar) Mali, Libya, Algeria 2012–2013
      Al-Murabitun (Mokhtar Belmokhtar) Mali, Libya, Algeria 2013–present
      Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia-
      Union of Islamic Courts (ARS/UIC) Somalia, Eritrea 2006–2009
      Ansar al-Islam Iraq 2001–present
      Ansar al-Sharia (Egypt) Egypt 2012–present
      Ansar al-Sharia (Libya) Libya 2012–present
      Ansar al-Sharia (Mali) Mali 2012–present
      Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia) Tunisia 2011–present
      Ansar Bait al-Maqdis
      (aka Ansar Jerusalem) Israel (Gaza) 2012–present
      Ansaru Nigeria 2012–present
      Osbat al-Ansar (AAA) Lebanon 1985–present
      Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
      (BIFF, aka BIFM) Philippines 2010–present
      Boko Haram Nigeria 2003–present
      Chechen Republic of Ichkeria
      (Basayev faction) Russia (Chechnya) 1994–2007
      East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM,
      aka Turkestan Islamic Party) China (Xinjang) 1989–present
      Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) Egypt 1978–2001
      Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya Syria 2012–present
      Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen Somalia 2002–present
      Harakat al-Shuada’a al Islamiyah
      (aka Islamic Martyr’s Movement, IMM) Libya 1996–2007
      Harakat Ansar al-Din Mali 2011–present
      Hizbul al Islam Somalia 2009–2010
      Imarat Kavkaz (IK, or Caucasus Emirate) Russia (Chechnya) 2007–present
      Indian Mujahedeen India 2005–present
      Islamic Jihad Union
      (aka Islamic Jihad Group) Uzbekistan 2002–present
      Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan 1997–present
      Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) Iraq, Syria 2004–present
      Jabhat al-Nusrah Syria 2011–present
      Jaish ul-Adl Iran 2013–present
      Jaish al-Islam
      (aka Tawhid and Jihad Brigades) Israel (Gaza), Egypt (Sinai) 2005–present
      Jaish al-Ummah (JaU) Israel (Gaza) 2007–present
      Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis Egypt (Sinai) 2011–present
      Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) Tajikistan 2010–present
      Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) Indonesia 2008–present
      Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Indonesia, Malaysia,
      Philippines, Singapore 1993–present
      Jondullah Pakistan 2003–present
      Jund al-Sham Lebanon, Syria, Israel (Gaza),
      Qatar, Afghanistan 1999–2008
      Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM) Philippines 2013–present
      Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, aka Mansoorian) Pakistan (Kashmir) 1990–present
      Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) Libya 1990–present
      Liwa al-Islam Syria 2011–present
      Liwa al-Tawhid Syria 2012–present
      Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) Morocco, Western Europe 1998–present
      Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa
      (MUJAO) Mali 2011–2013
      Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN) Egypt 2011–present
      Mujahideen Shura Council Israel (Gaza), Egypt (Sinai) 2011–present
      Salafia Jihadia (As-Sirat al Moustaquim) Morocco 1995–present
      Suqour al-Sham Brigade Syria 2011–2015
      Tawhid wal Jihad Iraq 1998–2004
      Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) Tunisia, Western Europe 2000–2011


  2. I stand corrected….or rather I would like to clarify that the teeny-tiny number of Muslims who are violent extremists and terrorists are not Salafis…in they sense that they do not follow the correct minhaj as explained by Salafi scholars….

    But virtually ALL of them are indoctrinated by the Salafi narrow minded literature that usually does NOT lead to violent extremism but often does lead to narrow mindedness and intolerance and in a tiny percentage of them to violent extremism.

    Let’s open our eyes.

    Enough of the excuses…Enough of the conspiracy theories…for the past multiple decades.

    Time for all Salafis to take a deep, systematic, open minded, open heart, and SUSTAINED transparent investigation by LISTENING and CONSIDERING the factors that other Muslim sects notice and what expert researchers have written about…whether Muslims or non-Muslims.


  3. I mentioned above …But virtually ALL of them are indoctrinated by the Salafi narrow minded literature that usually does NOT lead to violent extremism but often does lead to narrow mindedness and intolerance and in a tiny percentage of them to violent extremism.

    Regarding the above, I want to further clarify that the Salafi literature does not lead a tiny percentage to violent extremism in a direct way…it does not preach that ….but some of the literature leads to a very narrow, literalist, ahistorical, fixed mindset that misleads young impressionable minds to not only be unaware of knowledge and wisdom from anything outside it’s sectarian confines but leads to a mindset that actively does not want to question…..a VERY un-Quranic and ANTI-Quranic mindset.


  4. MQ,
    I understand your concerns, and I think you genuinely want the best for the Ummah as all Muslims do. I also think that “young impressionable minds” can be misled in a variety of ways, and by any creed without proper guidance. Also, you said, salafii thought leads to “a mindset that actively does not want to question” but wasn’t Salafi minhaj born out of a desire to question?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ibn Issam,

    I don’t have time to go over the mountain of research. I bid you peace and the mercy and blessings of God.

    But for a response….Just google any researcher you want whether by Professor Pape or anyone who has researched this area.

    I am not at all saying that other outside factors….such as oppression and occupation, etc did not contribute. Those factors were there no doubt.

    But of the tiny number of violent extremists among Muslims, virtually all are Salafist.

    Again, virtually all are Salafist.

    I don’t have time to explain this truth. If anyone asks how to know this…just look back at the news and randomly, pick any 10 Muslim terrorists in the past year….almost all, if not all would be Salafist. If you have time, pick 100…almost all, if not all would be Salafist….even though Salafism is a minority in the Muslim population.

    We cannot be unmindful of this….Enough of the excuses for Salafism….Enough of the Conspiracy Theories.

    Enough of the sufferings that Muslims have to endure because of Salafist mindset.

    The doctrines that has influenced young immature minds into a narrow and literalist, intolerant of other views outside ahistorical hyper sectarian confines are often Salafist.

    Also sometimes you can see the effect that a Salafist brainwashing has on young minds by just seeing how it changes them….it gets them to often develop a smug facial expression, see how it affects their tone of voice, their mannerisms towards others.

    Yes, there is a desire to question the schools of thought and so on in the Salafist Minhaj and I applaud that.

    Again, that is something to be applauded. I don’t want to encourage Salafists to not be insistent on issues that undermine Tawheed.

    But once they inculcate you in this cultish methodology of their own without adequate understanding of anthropology of oral transmission in turbulent, sectarian times…then they want to close off your minds into ghettos and for you to then smother the desire, the virtue to question and gain deeper knowledge and insights.

    “Use your brain until you adopt our methodology…..better if we can get you when you are young and naive…and then do not use your brain any more other than to memorize and regurgitate and argue those who disagree with us.”

    I am not against the arguments raised against Christian Trinitarians….that’s all valid….and I think they raise true points that I hope my Christian brothers and sisters will open up to.

    However the Salafist minhaj is in sharp opposition to the Qur’an. The Salafist minhaj arose and was evolved due to many historical, political, and to a lesser extent to even tribal factors

    Unlike the Qur’an, the Salafist minhaj teaches a rigidity that closes off the desire to want to undersand history, art, anthropology, religious studies, politics, social sciences, psychology, mathematics, probability, logic….the Salafist minhaj in some ways is profoundly unQuranic…the Salafist minjah in someways isprofoundly anti-Quranic.

    I ask my Christian Brothers and Sisters as well as those of other faiths or no faith to be aware of Qurans that are mistranslated by Salafists.

    A translation and commentary that has some of the good features of Salafism but leaves the features that are sectarian is Muhammad Assad’s translation and commentary of the Qur’an.

    I hope that helps all who are sincere.


  6. The important thought just came to me that it would not be smart to google the news and so on to look for the past 10 or so Muslim terrorists….

    Since we live in a Orwellian Surveillance world….surveillance software might flag someone doing that as suspicious for being a violent extremist himself.

    So, its better to just read one of the books where research has been done….or one can use their common sense and stop being in denial.


  7. Here is a related link:
    6 common misconceptions about Salafi Muslims in the West

    Liked by 1 person

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